Wednesday, November 4, 2009

Training Tactics

We don't perfectly understand the way the creative subconscious operates, but we know or suspect a few things that you can use to your advantage. Keep these things in mind while you're drafting new pages, and you might make it easier on yourself to produce on command.

Negatives Might Be Invisible

There is some evidence (though it's inconclusive) that the creative subconscious doesn't respond to negative statements. Words like "not" might slip right through without registering. If you do affirmations or meditations as part of your creative ritual, make sure you phrase it positively. So,

I will not get distracted

would be better phrased as,

I will stay focused.


I won't pause until I get to my goal,

could be converted to,

I will write steadily until I reach my goal.

Positives Are, Er, Positive

Even if you don't do this type of affirmation work, pay close attention to how you think about your own creative process. Use positive words -- not just words that avoid "not," but words that cast your concepts in a positive light The creative part of your mind is open to suggestions, and you don't want to teach it to behave in accordance with whatever negative statements you put on yourself. You may despair that your ideas are all misshapen abortions, but you don't want to convince the deepest part of your psyche that this is a true statement. Even the heaviest self-abuse can be spun around into something more positive and less self-destructive. Those misshapen abortions might be better thought of as tiny seeds. Some will sprout, and the others can remain fallow, but you don't have to insult them. Or their mamas.

Use Triggers

This is all very Pavlov's-dog, but it turns out that certain kinds of ruts are very good for our creative minds, though we tend to call them rituals. You may have already experienced something like this in your own writing life. Do you always begin a new writing session by pouring a fresh mug of coffee? Do you light a candle? Close your web browser? Play a particular song when you're writing certain characters or scenes?

These things can function as triggers -- external, physical cues to the internal psyche that it's time to shift into productive, generative work now. If you have trouble settling down to work, try incorporating something like this and see if it makes it easier to get started.

Create Safe Zones

When we were talking about our timed writing exercise, what we were essentially doing is creating a type of safe zone. When you set the timer, you made a bargain with yourself. For ten minutes, you were free to create new words without any interference. That ten minutes was a safe space. Nothing was allowed to damage it.

There are other ways to create safe zones. Your desk might be a physical safe zone if nobody else is allowed to use it. Or maybe it's your entire office. If you are in a busy family household, you might make "after bedtime" into a safe zone for your writing by turning off the tv, ignoring the laundry, and setting the phone on vibrate -- in another room. Or you might get up before everyone else and treat the silent dawn as a safe zone.

Some writers have one computer for goofing off online, household tasks, the checkbook, and so on, and a separate computer used for writing and nothing else. I used to use my laptop this way until a certain 9-year-old appropriated it for games. But for me, while it worked, it worked exceptionally well. Powering up that laptop was all it took to get me into a productive, calm mindset.

NaNo itself is a safe zone. Think about it. :)

Use the Clock

We've already discussed timed speed-writing as one way to use the clock. But there are more such methods. Morning pages are one: Every morning, no matter what, the very first thing you do straight out of bed is write a set number of pages. They can be journal pages, manuscript pages, or whatever you choose, but they have to be first thing in the morning.

I think it was Dorothea Brande (or Brandt?) who advocated a second session later in the day. She suggested that once the morning pages habit was established, you should pick a set time every day for a second writing session. No matter what else you're doing at that time, stop. Write for a set period. Don't stall or dawdle. Set an alarm clock if you must, and avoid "lemmejust" syndrome -- "Lemmejust finish reading this email; lemmejust fix a snack; lemmejust retie my shoelaces." The time is the trigger. Once that second session is routine, she advocated changing the time from day to day. By doing this, you can train yourself to generate new pages on command.

The Connecting Factor

All of these tactics share a single underlying concept. We can train ourselves to be both more creative and more productive by using props like affirmations, special coffee mugs, clocks, candles, music, and so on. What you choose to use is far less important than its constant usage. Your goal is to create associations -- a positive affirmation sets a goal, and 9:00 p.m. means it's time to write, and Eric Clapton's "Slow Hand" means you're writing in your antagonist's point of view. Once the association is established, the generative part of writing should get much easier.

So what rituals do you use to signal that it's time to write? Do you use different triggers when you're editing?



Humans. Cats. Boat. said...

Fascinating article. And timely, too. :)

I write action scenes to loud rock music: Nine Inch Nails, Tool, etc. For love scenes, no music, no sound. Nothing at all, while everyone sleeps and the house is quiet.

Of course, then the dog starts dreaming and air-runs. Kind of kills the mood, eh.

But I'll try those other tricks (the association and triggers, especially).

Okay, I'm down with the flu and it's time for bed. Thanks for the great food for thought. I'll process more while I sleep. Hopefully, the first thing I do tomorrow is write a few pages.

Anonymous said...

The main ritual is putting the kids to bed. Once that's done, the writing can start. I have absolutely no idea what's going to happen once they're old enough to stay up later. Think they'll listen to me when I tell 'em I need an hour or two of quiet to write? *cough*

I do need quiet to write, though. I can't have the TV on so I can hear it, so if my wife's watching something, I have to put the headphones on and turn the classical music up (nothing with lyrics, please). What can I say? I'm easily distracted.

Edittorrent said...

If Nat can't avoid the flu, there's little hope for the rest of us mere mortals. Feel better soon!

Simon, classical music works for me, too. Also, with kids, I find bribery is a great motivator. ;)


Amanda said...

Thank you for posting these entries about the creative mind. After reading your post on speed writing, I have been able to get 500 words in 20 minutes (it usually takes me an hour). I can finally turn off my inner critic. THANK YOU!!!

Jami Gold said...

I get interrupted constantly throughout the day, if I waited for uninterrupted time, I'd never get anything done. I can write a sentence, get interrupted, and then pick up right where I left off. It's something I've had to train my brain to be able to do, simply because I didn't have a choice. :)

Jami G.

Jonam said...

Nice blog POST

Leona said...

Jami, I'm the same way. Because I have five children (yes, one is gone, but when she talks, she tlaks LOL) with constant needs from gtting picked up from school or changing diapers. Tuesday I had to pick my kindergartner up with bad asthma attack. Every three hours he needed treatments and constant watching. My baby decided to have his worst day of teething and side effects yet. Plus I had the regular stuff - dress rehearsal, pay bills, transport the rest of the fam -

But, that being said, I was able to put out over 2k (yesterday was four k :). the important things is to keep writing.

I have had to train myself to do that whenever distractions happen. It's hard, but it can be done. As the post says, you can train your mind to write on demand!

Thanks for these lovely posts during NaNoWriMo. Today will be the hardest for me as I get past the premeditated part of my story. Now, I have to find a way to keep the story moving without doing the same thing all the time (how many ways can you describe a sword fight?) and follow in the genre. I'm writing my first full length fantasy. Here we go again.

Maybe can use baby teething to help give the angst in the story power:P

Have a good day everyone :)

Sherri Cornelius said...

Good post, Theresa. I've borrowed the topic and linked to this post on my blog.

The main thing I do to ensure I can write is to give myself permission. I'm easily lemmejusted out of writing time, doing things for others instead of myself. Keeping it in my forebrain that I am also worthy of fulfillment, writing fulfills me, and so I may write...that's what keeps me going.

My pre-writing ritual is to turn the tv off, set my timer, get out my notebook and opening yWriter. That gets me in the mood.

Jami Gold said...


Wow! Now that's something to be proud of... You definitely beat me in the crazy schedule department with all that going on. :)

Jami G.

Ian said...

I think I read somewhere that formulating a habit takes 21 consecutive days. Back in early October, I stopped fighting my body's sleep schedule and started going to bed and getting up two hours earlier than I had been. It's amazing how rested I feel now despite getting up around 4 AM. I've been averaging over a thousand words an hour during the early morning writing session, and getting a good 90 minutes in before I have to wake the kids and go to work. It's working astonishingly well for me.

I love writing to music. Angsty indie rock for angsty emo sections; pounding techno for action sequences; classical anytime. A lot of times, I pick music that would be in the soundtrack of the film of my book, but I tend to write like I'm watching a movie instead of writing a book. Does that make sense?

Humans. Cats. Boat. said...

"A lot of times, I pick music that would be in the soundtrack of the film of my book, but I tend to write like I'm watching a movie instead of writing a book. Does that make sense?"

That's how I do it, too. I'm writing the movie that's playing in my head.

Edittorrent said...

Ian, 4 a.m.? That's usually about when I go to sleep. I've heard that about the 21 days, too, and that's part of what makes NaNo so effective, I think. It created the opportunity for us to formulate new habits.

Sherri, a lot of people struggle with the idea that writing can be allowed. Especially busy people with so many demands on our time. But if it's important, we find a way to do it. We don't skip brushing out teeth because we're "too busy," do we? It matters. That's all the permission we need, really. :)